As support for fossil fuels dwindles, can training programs help workers pivot to renewables?

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees
For business

It’s no secret that fossil fuels have lost favor in a world that once relied on them.  Report after report outlines the diminishing generation share of coal-fired plants, while renewables such as solar and wind energy have seen marked upswings in recent years.

This has left predominantly coal mining states, such as Kentucky and West Virginia, scrambling for answers as plants shut down and associated jobs are eliminated.

West Virginia, in particular, was ranked America’s worst state for business in 2017 by CNBC.  The state was one of only 7 whose economies declined in 2016, and the decrease was almost entirely due to the decline in mining, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Coal’s death spiral has even inspired talks of a regulatory bailout.  The Trump administration is reportedly considering using a 68-year-old statue called the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to essentially nationalize private industry to make sure the U.S. has resources that could be needed for a war or disaster, to save the coal industry.

President Harry Truman previously used the law during the Korean War to cap wages and impose price controls on the steel industry, and it was again invoked in 2001 to keep natural gas supply stable in California.

But is bailing out a struggling industry really the answer to mining states’ economic woes?  Or is it possible to re-train fossil fuel workers in another energy sector, one that’s growing at an exponential rate – renewables?

Making the transition

Retraining fossil fuel workers for careers in the renewables industry isn’t a new concept: In Canada, oil sands workers themselves insisted on spearheading the transition – even when faced with pay cuts.  Iron and Earth, created in 2015, is an organization led by oil sands workers who believe in pivoting to clean energy.

In October 2017, the group hosted a five-day solar skills course in Alberta where 15 participants learned rooftop solar installation techniques.  Iron and Earth officials say they hope to train 1,000 coal, oil and gas workers to become solar technicians.

“Energy workers have skills which are transferable and versatile but need support for them to diversify into the market,” Iron and Earth communications director Jen Turner told PV Buzz.

In Germany, campaigns to teach coal miners new skills date back to the 1990s.  A country that once employed hundreds of thousands of coal workers will see the last of its mines close by the end of 2018 as part of its goal to have 80 percent of the country’s energy generated from renewables by 2050.

While unemployment exceeds 10 percent in some cities, Stefanie Groll, head of Environmental Policy and Sustainability at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Berlin, told Scientific American that overall it “was really a soft and just transition.”

“In the Ruhr area, union representatives and local politicians worked out a plan to compensate and requalify people who worked in the coal industry,” Groll said.

Challenges to implementing programs

Training programs for oil and coal workers also exist in the U.S., though there are challenges in implementing the programs.

One of the primary challenges is geography: solar and wind jobs are much more plentiful in states where sunshine and wind are also abundant.  California boasts 40 percent of all solar jobs in the country, while midwestern states see up to a quarter of their electricity production coming from wind.

Beyond natural resources, the renewable industry also gravitates toward states that offer pro-clean energy policies and incentives.  In this respect, coal states tend to offer the least.

Still, there are programs available for those who wish to seek them out.

Colorado-based Solar Energy International, for example, holds solar training seminars across the country.

“Solar Energy International was founded in 1991 as a non-profit educational organization,” the company says on its website.  “Through the years, trends and technologies come and go but SEI’s mission remains the same today as it was when we began: to empower people around the world through the education of sustainable practices.”